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County commission sets 150-foot buffer for solar projects despite residents’ request for 1000-foot buffer

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During the evening portion of their December 14 regular meeting, the Alachua County Commission held a second public hearing on the County’s Unified Land Development Code related to solar facilities, major utilities, and car washes. 

The draft ordinance included provisions that major utilities must provide a high-density buffer (150 feet if adjacent to residential areas, 75 feet otherwise) unless otherwise approved by the Board through a special exception; solar facilities may be allowed in certain districts except in the parcels that were subject to a special exception application prior to July 1, 2021, “where they may be allowed with a special exception.” Solar facilities must provide a buffer of 150 feet if adjacent to residential areas and 75 feet otherwise. Some provisions for car washes in neighborhoods were also added, and in the draft, solar facilities were removed from a list of facilities that are exempted from a requirement to have 30% of the site under mature tree canopy in 20 years–which means that solar facilities would be subject to the 30% canopy requirement.

The staff presentation discussed solar heat island effects on surrounding properties, and staff’s conclusion was that none of the existing studies were “perfectly applicable” to the question of adequate vegetative buffers. The studies found a potential heat island effect (higher ambient temperatures in the vicinity of the solar array) that fall off with distance from the array. In one study, the temperature fell from about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient at the edge of the solar facility to about 1 degree Fahrenheit above ambient at about 300 feet from the edge of the facility. Another study found that the temperature dropped to ambient at about 130 feet in a desert environment.

Staff also showed that a 30% tree canopy requirement would equate to a buffer of about 431 feet around the exterior of the project for a 75-megawatt facility on a one-square-mile plot of land, if the land were already planted with trees. 

“[I feel] way more heat from the asphalt road of Highway 90 than I ever did from the solar array… I’m going to tell you that’s my personal experience, and I think a 150-foot buffer is plenty.” – Commissioner Mary Alford

Commissioner Mary Alford said she owns property next to a solar facility in Suwannee County, and she feels “way more heat from the asphalt road of Highway 90 than I ever did from the solar array… I’m going to tell you that’s my personal experience, and I think a 150-foot buffer is plenty.”

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During public comment on the motion to accept staff’s recommendation, attorney Nathan Skop said he was speaking on behalf of 30 clients he represents in Archer. He said the buffer requirement is inadequate and that the presentation conflated tree canopy with solar heat island effect. He said solar arrays can be 3-4 degrees Celsius (5.4-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the surrounding wild lands at night. He added that Origis (the applicant for the Archer solar array) acknowledged in their application that the solar heat island effect extends 328 feet. Skop said that the buffer needs to be measured from the property line, not from the residence. His clients are requesting a 1000-foot buffer from the property line, and Skop said the 150-foot buffer “creates climate change on someone else’s property.”

David McSherry pointed out that solar panels will need to be disposed of at the end of their usable life, so he said the ordinance should also require that decommissioned panels be retained on-site, covered, above ground on a concrete slab, no more than a thousand at a time. And he said they should require that decommissioned panels be sent to a licensed disposal facility. 

Hattie Osgood, a neighbor of the Archer site, also requested a 1000-foot buffer. Connie Lee made the same request and also pointed out that the ordinance will allow 20 years to grow the tree canopy, and the panels will only last for about 25 years. Michelle Rutledge and Jesse Moses also asked for increased buffers. 

Commissioner Ken Cornell said they should remove the 30% tree canopy requirement “because I think that’s the purpose of the solar facility, is to address the climate change issues that I think this board is attempting to address.” He asked whether they could legally add requirements for decommissioning solar panels.

Assistant County Attorney Corbin Hanson told the board that the state law requiring them to allow solar facilities also probably prohibits them from adding requirements on decommissioning panels. Cornell said he would be in favor of testing that: “What I would argue is that the decommissioning of solar panels has nothing to do with solar generation. It’s actually us saying, ‘When you’re done doing what you’re permitted to do under the statute, put it back the way it was,’ and so I think we should add some sort of protection in our ordinance, and if, in fact, the state preempts us from that, then they can address and pay for how they’re decommissioned… I want solar to happen, but I don’t want to be left with the liability of the waste.” 

“I’m sorry for the folks that feel that isn’t enough, but a thousand feet is, you know, a really, really long ways, and that’s a huge part of the property, and… I think that’s just too much. It’s like an arbitrary large number to me.” – Commissioner Mary Alford

Alford said she agreed with eliminating the 30% tree canopy requirement and that she supported the 150-foot buffer. “I’m sorry for the folks that feel that isn’t enough, but a thousand feet is, you know, a really, really long ways, and that’s a huge part of the property, and… I think that’s just too much. It’s like an arbitrary large number to me.”

“But I just think that at some point we have to let the legislature know that we’re not going to take this crap, but if we keep giving in to what they do to us, it’s like we’re giving consent that it’s okay to do that to us… You’ve taken my home rule authority, and then we sit here and we set things, trying to be reasonable when they weren’t reasonable. It just pisses me off” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said, “I’m so pissed off at the legislature with this exception stuff. You took away my home rule authority, now you give me the right to set the buffers. Well, I’m going to set the buffers where I think is reasonable and that would protect homeowners, that’s what I would do… But I just think that at some point we have to let the legislature know that we’re not going to take this crap, but if we keep giving in to what they do to us, it’s like we’re giving consent that it’s okay to do that to us… It just upsets me that they tell us the only thing we can do is vegetation and the setbacks, that’s the only rights that we have. You know, I support solar; I think it’s needed, I think it’s the future, but I just don’t think that when the legislature preempt me that I should be now going to set things reasonable when they didn’t to me. That’s just my personal feelings… You’ve taken my home rule authority, and then we sit here and we set things, trying to be reasonable when they weren’t reasonable. It just pisses me off, but those are my comments, Madam Chair. You know, this kind of stuff is not right, it’s not fair. Sometimes we have to fight back and let them know that we’re not going to take this crap.”

Alford said that the Archer properties would still come before the board because they’re exempt from the new ordinance, so the board could still put additional conditions on those projects, including larger buffers. Cornell made a substitute motion to keep the solar facility exemption for the 30% tree buffer, accept staff’s recommendation on buffers (75/150), and ask staff to bring back recommendations for adding additional requirements for decommissioning of solar panels. 

During public comment on the substitute motion, Skop urged the board to find a compromise in the required buffers: “Let’s do something that balances the interests of residential property owners with developers because it seems like we’re just giving away the farm, literally.”

David McSherry called in to say that the decommissioning isn’t just at the end of the project because about 1% of the panels will be rejected during construction.

The motion passed 4-1, with Chestnut in dissent.

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